A Senate commission will soon explore whether Rhode Island should decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and tax the drug, a path recently taken by Massachusetts.
Commission members are exploring several questions that suggest an underlying skepticism with criminalizing marijuana, including whether existing prohibitions have decreased drug use, caused corruption among law enforcement officials, and resulted in violence. The panel will present its findings early next year.
Commission member Nick Horton, a policy researcher for OpenDoors, which works to reintegrate criminal offenders into society, said presidential candidates have admitted using marijuana but people in his Providence neighborhood still get jailed for it. “That double standard does more harm than good to our justice system,’’ he said.
State Senator Joshua Miller, a Democrat from Cranston, created the commission and serves as its chairman. He has not yet backed any specific changes to Rhode Island’s drug laws, but members will hear testimony about recent changes in Massachusetts.
In November 2008, Bay State voters decided to make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana punishable by a $100 fine and confiscation of the drug rather than a crime carrying a maximum six-month prison sentence and a $500 fine.
The measure was approved over the objections of police and prosecutors, who feared it would encourage use of what they consider more harmful drugs and interfere with their ability to prosecute traffickers who sometimes become suspects because of marijuana possession.
Some cities and towns in Massachusetts have since created additional penalties to discourage marijuana use.
Rhode Island lawmakers already have taken steps to legalize some marijuana use. In 2006, they started allowing patients who registered with the state to possess small amounts of marijuana if it’s used to relieve pain or chronic ailments.
In June, the General Assembly expanded the medical marijuana program by authorizing up to three nonprofit stores to sell marijuana legally. State health officials still are determining how those stores will be licensed and regulated.
Governor Donald L. Carcieri, a Republican, and the State Police have opposed expansions of the medical marijuana system.
Miller’s panel is required to examine the cost of prosecuting and jailing offenders, as well as consider the possibility of legalizing marijuana sales and imposing a tax of $35 per ounce or more.
Financial arguments could be tempting because Rhode Island faces a $220 million budget deficit for the fiscal year ending in June, about 7 percent of what state authorities originally expected to collect.
December 26, 2009